The Death of Nuclear Talks with North Korea

North Korea’s latest nuclear test has resulted in a familiar chorus of international condemnation. Surprisingly, the only meaningful change in rhetoric has come from the regime itself. Pyongyang now implies its nuclear programme is no longer up for negotiation.

North Korea's recent foreign policy history can be described most succinctly as a cycle of provocation, isolation, and negotiation. The most recent nuclear test - itself a reaction against the Security Council's resolution against the 12 December rocket launch - places the current situation squarely in the first stage of provocation.

A familiar set of events is already unfolding in step with this pattern. The US, EU, China, Russia and a host of other nations have condemned North Korea's nuclear test. The UN Security Council has called an emergency meeting, and tightened sanctions will likely follow. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has promised 'merciless retaliation' and further provocations in reaction to any such measures. If matters proceed as they did after the 2006 and 2009 tests, a freeze in diplomatic engagement is now set to begin.

Yet as has been made obvious during past crises, there is a lack of clarity amongst the West and its allies over what isolation of North Korea  is actually intended to achieve. Indeed, there is a quietly held belief in the West that re-opening dialogue with Pyongyang following a provocation is the only viable way of at least suspending further belligerence, and at most achieving a breakthrough on the nuclear issue. Since 1984, the US has pursued engagement with North Korea on an average of five months after a provocation.

The absence of any noticeable change to the West's response to the latest nuclear test suggests that re-engagement with Pyongyang later this year is still possible. The difference this time around, however, is that the North's nuclear programme may no longer be negotiable.

Borrowing Rhetoric

In recent years, engagement has had a nuclear focus. But Pyongyang's change in rhetoric over denuclearisation suggests this may no longer be a feasible approach for the West and its allies. Two official North Korean statements in the aftermath of UN Security Council Resolution 2087 clarify the leadership's new position. In them, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Defence Commission conclude that 'only when the denuclearisation of the world is realized on a perfect level, including the denuclearization of the US, will it be possible to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and ensure peace and security of the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]'.

These statements are strikingly familiar. President Obama, in his 2009 Prague speech on disarmament, said: 'Make no mistake: As long as [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.' The UK's 2006 Defence White Paper on Trident, and its 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, make similar assumptions.

Pyongyang has intentionally borrowed the West's own rhetoric to highlight a double standard that nuclear weapons states will find it difficult to argue with. Logic propounded by the North Korean regime is shared by Washington, London, and Paris: a nuclear-armed state seeking to guarantee the security of its citizens must retain a credible deterrent so long as others continue to possess nuclear weapons.

An End for Multilateral Negotiations

For Pyongyang, refusing to consider denuclearisation whilst other states possess nuclear weapons is also a convenient way to highlight a double standard in international arms control. It is also the logical foundation for their ultimate conclusion: there will be no more dialogue about North Korea's nuclear programme. 

Largely overlooked by the international community in the build up to the latest nuclear test was Pyongyang's pledge that, barring the realisation of global disarmament, 'there can be talks for peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region [...] but no talks for the denuclearization of the peninsula.'

Articulated with authority and calculated consistency, these pledges should be taken seriously. Whether Pyongyang ever felt that nuclear talks were in its interest or approached them in good faith is debatable. Either way, the regime seems to feel that it would now gain little from a process of dialogue aimed at limiting or rolling back its nuclear capabilities.

Should Pyongyang stay true to its word, it will have unilaterally barred the West's preferred avenue for resolving tensions on the Korean peninsula. This may deal a deathblow to the Six-Party Talks, which were established in 2003 to address the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. 

Because of the need to agree an agenda before formal negotiations begin again, the West and its allies will have to settle for discussions with Pyongyang that do not include the nuclear programme. Creating a new six-member forum for broader issues of Korean peninsula security seems implausible, and would be viewed by most at the table as pointless appeasement. In the absence of a multilateral Six Party Talks successor, any such engagement will probably be bilateral.

Disparate Approaches to Bilateral Engagement

Bilateral engagement on non-nuclear issues may prove palatable for some countries, but not for others. In the long term, therefore, any move away from a multilateral approach may create daylight between the US, South Korea and other key stakeholders in the North Korea issue.

The Obama administration has shown little interest in discussing issues unrelated to Pyongyang's nuclear programme. Indeed, doing otherwise will be hard to sell at home. In fact, Washington may be generally averse to bilateral US-North Korea dialogue in its second term, wary of getting burned a second time after the failure of the 2012 'Leap Day Agreement'.

On the other hand, South Korea's president-elect, Park Gyeun Hye, campaigned on a platform of cautious engagement with the DPRK. Pyongyang's nuclear test will make it impossible to deliver on this policy in the coming months. But domestic recognition that the harsh policies of the Lee Myung-Bak administration have failed to improve the situation, and public pressure for Park to attempt a measurably different approach from her predecessor, may prompt diplomatic overtures later in 2013. 

President Park stresses that a large economic assistance package for the North will be unacceptable without progress on denuclearisation. Her 'trustpolitik' emphasises the importance of first pursuing small, reciprocal confidence-building measures. Contrary to Washington's preference for big deals, the incoming administration in South Korea will likely maintain a modest level of dialogue with the DPRK.

The different policy approaches of Seoul and Washington may confuse matters. While a return to the tensions seen between the Bush administration and the Roh government during the mid 2000s is unlikely, a less unified, coherent approach to North Korea amongst various stakeholders is one possible outcome of the latest nuclear test.

Pyongyang will be poised to take advantage of these differences should they emerge. Recognising this, and despite any practical differences, the US and South Korea should make a concerted effort to maintain a unified front, at least in public.

How China will respond to bilateralism, rather than the Six Party Talks, remains to be seen. In reaction to the latest test, China issued an almost verbatim repetition of its 2009 statement calling for a resumption of the Six Party Talks. This is likely to define Beijing's position into the near future, not least because the Six Party Talks are a useful vehicle to rebuff calls from Washington and its allies for tougher action over Pyongyang's provocations. Despite its 'resolute opposition' to the latest test, the Xi Jinping government has shown little indication that it would be comfortable with a purely bilateral engagement process, or that it plans to fundamentally change its policy towards North Korea.

With Pyongyang now resolutely opposed to further talks on denuclearisation, the road ahead is as uncertain as ever. One thing seems increasingly clear, however: a nuclear-armed North Korea is here to stay. As we emerge from the aftermath of the latest North Korean nuclear test, the international community will be challenged to establish a unified posture against Pyongyang's nuclear programme. Their next task will be to decide what to do about it.



Andrea Berger

Associate Fellow

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